Do you want others to listen better?
If you’re seeking to engage in more meaningful discussion, we’ve all got to figure out how to listen better. Here’s how!
I don’t know about you, but my old monkey brain doesn’t half have a mind of its own. Each time I meditate in silence, it’s a great reminder of how easily I get distracted. Last summer when I suffered a concussion, my neurologist told me to dial back all cognitive work… for six weeks. I ended up having to spend time in a dark room without any sound, things to do, watch, read or browse. Nothing. The prescription was to [try to] stop all thinking. Talk about difficult. On another level, it can also be difficult to others who wax on without pause or who says things bereft of reason or facts. What’s generally easier is to listen to good stories or, easier still, those who share your point of view. As Adam Grant (author of Think Again) said, “We listen to views that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard.” In a world where so many people feel as if they need to be heard, that they’re not listened to enough, and/or that their point of view is under-represented, it’s become a very crowded and noisy world. And, as much as we might think we know how to listen (me included), it’s a veritable daily combat my monkey mind to calm down enough and listen hard when someone is conveying an opinion that goes against my belief system. Yet, do we need to lean into these moments. It may not just make us grow. It may help bring back some deeply missed civility into our society.
Friends, Colleagues, Fellow Citizens,
Lend Me Your Ears…
Ok, so that’s not really how Mark Antony started his speech in Julius Caesar (source), but it feels more appropriate in terms of those on whom we need to focus today, including our colleagues at work and all the fellow civilians and politicians in whichever democracy you live in (as opposed to Mark Antony’s so-expressed Romans and countrymen). Insofar as we may wish to live in a country that is prosperous and just, every nation is filled with people with diverse experiences, opinions and beliefs. You can imagine the uproar and heated debates that must have ensued after the populist Julius Caesar’s death. In today’s world, with populism and the spectre of autocracy on the rise, we have many ideological battlegrounds that have an echo with the infighting in the Republic of Rome, and I’d add, in its demise several years later. These can be referred to as culture wars, a loaded topic today on many talk shows and university campuses. In Mark Antony’s famous monologue, he later intones that “men have lost their reason.” The same could be said today. I think that, much as Brutus’ mind was bent by the consorting Cassius, we are now swayed by the media and quick to judge anything without having a reasonable solution or understanding of the [intended or unintended] consequences. So many of us are strung up with high-headed beliefs and have great – if not grave – difficulty listening to dissonant topics and alternative beliefs. What one side believes is “good” is not necessarily good for all. As Mark Antony posits, while Brutus presumably had good intentions, the notion that murdering Caesar was for the good of Rome is up for solid debate. And, history shows that the death of Caesar paved the way for the end of the Republic. But for now, let’s get back to our Dialogos and the need to lend our ears.
Self-knowledge and self-awareness
As a precondition of being deeply present in a conversation, it’s essential to do work on oneself, in the form of self-knowledge. This means learning about and being aware of the topics and words that trigger reactions. It means being able to listen to and read your own emotions. What types of worries, weaknesses and baggage do you carry around? For example, to what extent do you have low self-confidence or self-esteem? In what situations are you concerned about losing face or control? Are you attracted to power or money? On the positive side, in terms of what you deem to be important, what are the values that you hold dear? What are some of your key beliefs and why do they matter to you? Are you truly curious or do you only have limited tolerance for new points of view? No one is perfect. We all have our ‘things’ which can deter our ability to listen openly to others. The fundamental point is to be aware of how you tick. The greater your awareness, the more you’ll be present in the conversation and able to adjust for your own foibles and imperfections.
Dial back expectations
As much as we all may seek to have more meaningful conversations and connections, these can’t be premeditated or happen on command. Setting expectations high puts extra pressure on the situation. As Sarah Rozenthuler wrote in her book, How to Have Meaningful Conversations, “The rhythm of a good conversation is not prescribed, like a cha-cha-cha or two-step, but an improvisation in which each person moves in response to the other. We don’t know where it will go, no one is in control.” We might call these agenda-free dialogues. By dialling back expectations and allowing the conversation to flow, both parties tacitly find their path. Freeing the energies and not directing the traffic means that the responsibility of the conversation is shared. As Rozenthuler says at the beginning of her book, “True dialogue is, in its best moments, technique-less.” As a participant, then, it’s important to let go of any expected result at the end of the conversation. When it works, the result is very much a 1+1=3. That’s a sensation that generates tremendous excitement in me.
Purpose, passion… and patience
There are two forces that drive me: purpose and passion. My personal purpose is to elegantly elevate the debate; and my passion is to connect people, dots and ideas to see them grow wings. When I’m passionate about something, it naturally enflames me. Sometimes I get so caught up in my own ‘trip’ that I can start to blunderbuss through everyone around me. I get so wrapped up in my project that I can forget to be open-minded and listen to the others at the table. It’s not a good look for someone who is promoting two-way meaningful connection. I need to remember to hold in check my enthusiasm and make sure that everyone has a chance to speak. I invoke a need for greater patience. Etymologically, the word patience has its roots directly from Latin, patienta, and then again through Old French, pacience, in the 12th century, meaning the "quality of being willing to bear adversities, calm endurance of misfortune, suffering, etc." Some might indeed find it painful to listen to notions and opinions that are contrary to those you hold dear, but this is a good opportunity to underscore the need to connect into other people’s pains and challenges. If you are wishing to get to a deeper type of discussion, as described in Rozenthuler’s book, you need to create a container, a space in which everyone feels comfortable exchanging more intimate thoughts. As she writes, “It is essential to have your own container where we can hear ourselves think, feel what is going on inside us and work out what we need to say to the other person. Once we have done this inner work, we are in a better position to reach out and talk.” As I wrote earlier, we must start with ourselves and developing self-awareness. My experience has been that if you open with authentic vulnerability and forge a container for the conversation, the others will follow.
Grace, gratefulness and generosity
It follows that grace is a vital attitude when listening. One way to do this is to acknowledge the other, by thanking them for being open and for sharing their deeper thoughts and feelings. Another powerful gesture is to acknowledge something you appreciate in the other person. It can be something you agree with. Such genuine generosity and recognition can take a form of courage. It will also tend to help elevate the discussion. As the psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, wrote in this 2005 article in the Greater Good Magazine, it’s a form of moral elevation, which he describes “as a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness, courage, or compassion.” When people observe such grace and generosity of spirit, Haidt elaborates that it can materially change “their views about humanity in a more optimistic way and triggering higher goals for themselves.” By taking a generous view of the other person and his/her perspectives, and by assuming good intention and looking for connection, we help create a container whereby both parties can proceed to a deeper and more meaningful space. As I mentioned above, another act of generosity is to expose a weakness or imperfection in oneself. I liken this to karmic leadership about which I wrote in my book, You Lead. Most often, it’s best to lead by example and take the first step.
"Listening is the glue that holds together a meaningful conversation."
Monkey mind and being present
If you’ve ever meditated, you’ll surely have a good understanding of what is the monkey mind. In common parlance, it’s the inner chatter, a flood of thoughts that are disorganized and difficult to control. There is plenty of debate about just how many thoughts one has in any given minute, but suffice it to say, we have many and they often have a life of their own. It’s an entirely normal experience. The monkey mind stealthily inserts itself even in the quietest of times (i.e. when meditating in a quiet room). When stimulated, the mind can be even more distracted. When we add in our ego and our own need to be heard, it’s easy for us to lose focus on what’s being said and, instead, consider when to jump in and interrupt with what we’re thinking. Being present with the other person’s words, absorbing their meaning and being aware of the other person’s emotions – shown through subtle nuances, body movement and facial expressions – requires concerted effort. When you find yourself feeling jumpity and/or about to interject, one good technique is just to sit with your breath. Breathe deeply, feel the cool breath running through your nose and into your lungs, and then recommit to listening to the person in front of you.
The art of questioning
I was listening to a podcast the other day where a friend of mine was interviewing an excited entrepreneur. Not only was the interviewee a motor-mouth, he would on occasion ask questions back to the interviewer (that weren’t even rhetorical) and not allow him to answer. There’s a talent to asking the right questions. Questions that are geared for the questioner to answer are poorly disguised ways of keeping the attention on oneself. Questions that are closed or that are imbued with a more or less subtle sense of judgment will tend to quash the flow. Of course, it depends on the context and the nature of the relationship. But insofar as we are looking at deep, meaningful conversations and, in this article, the skill of listening, asking good questions is key. In the spirit of keeping a conversation going, questions are pivotal triggers. There’s an art and a timing to questions. There are those questions that you will use to get the ball rolling, for example:
How have you been … really?
There are questions that encourage the speaker to develop:
How did that [incident] make you feel?
There are those that are designed to make the person go deeper:
To what extent is that important for you?
In all these examples, the questions are open (i.e. not asking for a yes or no). Try adding in such questions in your next conversation!
To move, follow, oppose, or by-stand
A truly meaningful conversation is a collaboration. As you will surely have figured out by now, I’m hoping, through Dialogos, to encourage and stimulate a desire to engage in the more difficult conversations between different parties with diverse angles, experiences, beliefs and concerns. Each person must participate. It’s not just a question of sitting back and listening. This isn’t a passive exercise. Nor is this just for those who are passionate about the topic. It’s a call to arms for all of us. The power of a meaningful conversation lies in the connection it forms and the creation of something bigger than the two individuals. David Kantor, author of Reading the Room, developed the Four Player Model, as part of his work on Structural Dynamics. It presents a model for how individuals show up in a conversation and what it takes to make progress through a discussion. Of particular note, it includes the ability for a conversation to ebb, to have hiccoughs and/or dissension (‘oppose’):
To MOVE: Here the player initiates the conversation. “Can we talk?” It’s an invitation to work on it together.
To FOLLOW: Here the second person accepts, supporting the initial move, and maybe qualifying the intention.
To OPPOSE: Here the player is changing the direction of flow, perhaps correcting what has been said or even disagreeing.
To BY-STAND: The player provides perspective, including making observations about the nature and flow of the conversation.
Done with tact, each of these steps are vital. Done wrong, they can derail. By their nature, conversations have a serpentine and unpredictable nature to their trajectory. To get to a more meaningful place, one can’t just listen, nod and agree. We must also allow for disagreements, quirks and kinks in the road. As Peter Garrett writes, “[A] healthy, well-functioning conversation will include all four Actions to reach good decisions together. If any of them are often (or always) missing, then the communication will be less effective and may even suffer a break-down.”
To the extent individuals have different opinions, the question becomes how to introduce the “opposition” in such a way that both parties can continue to engage. One of the most effective ways of listening to a different point of view is to reformulate. The art of reformulating is well known in therapy, especially for those who use the ‘Rogerian’ (Carl Rogers) technique. In normal conversation, it’s rare to see it in practice. Yet, it’s a fascinating and powerful tool. By reformulation, I mean that, as the listener, you recap what you’ve heard using your own words and without applying judgment. You can also, when appropriate, add in qualifying commentary about the speaker’s observable emotions. There are many benefits to doing this. For starters, if you are intentional about reformulating, it makes you double-down on your focus. Secondly, it helps you to integrate what the other person is saying. Thirdly, by reformulating what you heard, your dialogue partner will either correct any misinterpretations or feel heard and continue on. In the Empathy Circle technique, developed by my friends Lidewij Niezink and Edwin Rutsch, reformulation is the backbone of empathic listening. Systematically, I have seen how it helps strengthen the bonds between the parties. Give it a try in your next informal conversation and see where it leads you.
Last but not least is the notion of time. As I wrote in my prior article on the Secret to Talking, when it comes to participating in a deep conversation, time is of the essence. When you are stressed by time and don’t have the space for proper listening, it’s unlikely the conversation will be optimal. As Oliver Burkeman, a guest on my podcast and author of the marvellous book, “Four Thousand Weeks,” wrote, you don’t and you can’t own time. Thus, it’s not about “having” the time to talk. It’s about making the time. You need to take responsibility for the time you allocate. We live with a finite amount of time (cf. the Model of Finitude). Time is one of the most important elements of the “container” that you need to create for a wholesome and full conversation. With ample time, you are able to hear out someone’s opinion. You will be in less of a rush to cut off the other and know that you’ll have the time, in due course, to express yourself. For starters, you might use the Seven-Minute rule created by a student of Sherry Turkle who gave a grace period of seven minutes to allow for the conversation to take. In her application, she self-imposed a ban on whipping out the phone during that period. Not a bad idea, wouldn’t you say?
Having started this piece with Shakespeare, I’ll finish with another fine quote from the doomed Polonius, who says in Hamlet:
“Give every man thy ear but few thy voice.”
(Hamlet: Act 1, Scene3, Line: 68)
In a world where so many people feel as if they need to be heard, that they’re not listened to enough, and/or that their point of view is under-represented, it’s become a very crowded and noisy world. And, as much as we might think we know how to listen (me included), it’s a veritable daily combat my monkey mind to calm down enough and listen hard when someone is conveying an opinion that goes against my belief system. Yet, do we need to lean into these moments. It may not just make us grow. It may help bring back some deeply missed civility into our society.
Further reading (all books):
You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy
How to Have Meaningful Conversations by Sarah Rozenthuler
Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
Reading the Room by David Kantor
DIALOGOS - Meaningful Conversation is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.